Experts at Stanford Medicine have identified a biological marker in infants that can be used to predict autism. In a small study of 33 babies, the researchers found that the hormone vasopressin was not as abundant in the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) of infants who were later diagnosed with autism.
Study co-senior author Dr. Karen Parker is an associate professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.
“When young children aren’t appropriately processing basic social stimuli early in life, it puts their brains on a different developmental trajectory,” said Dr. Parker.
Autism is a developmental disorder characterized by poorly developed social skills, sensory issues, repetitive behavior patterns, and restricted interests.
There are ways to test for autism in children as young as two, but a shortage of autism specialists often delays diagnosis until age four or later. This means that many children are missing out on the benefits of early treatment.
“If we could identify these children earlier, we could intervene earlier,” said Dr. Parker.
Among male mammals, the protein hormone vasopressin affects social behaviors such as pair-bonding and fathering.
The Stanford study suggests that vasopressin plays an important role in autism. The team had found previously that CSF levels of vasopressin are lower in children and teens with autism, and that individuals with the lowest CSF vasopressin levels had the most severe autism symptoms.
Dr. Parker’s team also demonstrated that administering vasopressin to kids with autism improves their social ability.
The current study was focused on a rare collection of cerebrospinal fluid samples from small babies. When infants under three months old develop a fever, doctors usually collect a CSF sample to rule out brain infections. The Stanford researchers used leftover CSF that had been frozen for subsequent research purposes.
The researchers found significantly lower CSF vasopressin levels in infants who were later diagnosed with autism. Individual vasopressin levels correctly predicted which children would develop autism in seven of the nine autism cases.
Dr. Parker said the findings need to be replicated in a larger group. Her team would like to study CSF samples from children with other disorders to determine whether low CSF vasopressin is specific to autism.
Prior research has found that babies who later develop autism do not show behavioral symptoms early in life. This indicates there is a window of time before symptoms first appear when behavioral therapies could be maximally effective, explained Dr. Parker.
“If we could intervene when kids still look at faces, smile and respond to their names, that could potentially change the trajectory of the disorder.”
The study is published in the Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences.
By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer